Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Other Opinion: NHL 'shrimps' bear the brunt of whale fights

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When whales fight, the shrimp's back is broken. Such is the wisdom of the Koreans, who know a thing or two about being sideswiped by warring behemoths.

And such is the reality of the NHL today as the off-ice clash of the titans -- a six-and-half-month bout of needless head-butting -- ended with a truce early Sunday morning.

The details of the tentative 10-year deal are largely irrelevant to the public, as are analyses of who came out further ahead -- the owners or the players' union. The minute the lockout began in mid-September, all hope of a winning scenario for either party was abandoned.

In any case, the biggest losers were never going to be the star players who'd forgo their fat paycheques or the business tycoons whose arenas would sit empty. Nor would it be NHL fans, despite their dismay over the demise of their preferred pastime. If anything, they ended up with more disposable cash and time.

The short end of the stick always belonged to the thousands of little people who made a living off the NHL -- either as direct employees of the 30 franchises or as workers in ancillary businesses that benefited from the spinoffs of the $3.3-billion-a-year industry.

These are the shrimps whose backs were broken while it took an absurd 113 days of drought to split NHL revenues down the middle or to settle on a salary cap that was going to remain in the stratosphere, no matter what.

Inevitably, of course, those who had the most on the line -- including TV networks starved of advertising revenue -- were reduced to the role of spectators as their bottom lines were battered. The league, in its salarial self-absorption, has just put on a massive show of indifference to their plight.

For it is obvious to all who were on the outside looking in that the agreement the parties eventually hammered out is hardly so transformational that it could not have been concluded without the collateral damage of a lockout. Inflexibility in labour talks is understandable, to a degree, if there is no more money to go around. But in cases where you have a growing pot, surely you can split the difference, for everyone's sake, and play on.

Sadly, the NHL is plagued by bad leadership and bad blood on both sides. Still, it is impossible not to single out commissioner Gary Bettman, the common denominator in three labour-front disasters over the course of two decades. An honourable man would have recognized long ago he was clearly part of the problem and resigned.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 8, 2013 A6

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